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Commissioners vote to move heritage tree for road expansion

Wednesday, November 6, 2013 by Mark Richardson

After assurances that the state would pay for most of the cost, Travis County Commissioners voted Tuesday to remove and transplant a 30-inch Heritage Oak tree standing in the way of an expansion of Frate Barker Road in South Austin.


Commissioners had postponed a vote last week on approving the $9 million contract to expand about a mile-and-a-quarter of Frate Barker between Manchaca Road and Brodie Lane. Folded into that contract is a $245,000 expense to transplant the tree – named Cali by area residents – to a donated plot about 500 feet away.


At least one commissioner – Pct. 3’s Gerald Daugherty – remained adamantly opposed, saying $245,000 was an outrageous amount to pay for moving a tree. Residents from the neighborhood, however, continued to demand that the tree be preserved.


Commissioners had sent staff back to the drawing board last week to find out if the Texas Department of Transportation would indeed pay 80 percent of the fee to move the tree, leaving Travis County responsible for just $49,000. They also asked County Executive Steve Manilla to look into separating the handling of the tree from the rest of the contract and re-bidding that portion in hopes of whittling down the $245,000.


Manilla returned Tuesday to say that he had received written assurance that TxDOT would cover their share of moving the tree, and that the bid for the tree could not be separated from the road-building contract. He said he would normally recommend that the tree be taken down and other trees be planted in its place but said it appeared that most commissioners preferred a transplant.


“In my experience, anytime you re-bid something, the cost goes up,” Manilla said. “They get an idea of what everyone else bid and usually you don’t end up saving much money.”


Manilla said that he has asked TxDOT officials if transplanting the tree fit under a state policy under which they can choose to share the cost of mitigating heritage trees. He distributed a written memo from TxDOT saying that in this instance, they would cover 80 percent of the cost.


Daugherty remained opposed to the expense, expressing concern that paying $245,000 to handle this tree could set a bad precedent for other road projects where trees are in the way.


“I’m concerned that every time we have a road project, we’ll get asked to pay to have trees moved,” he said. “I’m trying to get the (US) 290 and (SH) 71 projects through Oak Hill, and there are a lot of large tress in the way. Are we willing to spend those kind of dollars for that, too?”


Rancho Alto Neighborhood resident Tracy Huguley told commissioners that local residents are only asking for the one tree to be saved, even though dozens of trees would be cut down to accommodate the road project.


“All we want to do is save this one tree, which is very important to us,” she said. “You know, this project is only about 80 feet from the Austin City Limits line. Just a few more feet, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The city would be protecting this tree.”


Commissioners voted 3-1, with Daugherty dissenting, to approve the $9 million road-widening project with the funds for transplanting the tree in the contract. Commissioner Ron Davis was absent.

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